Ed Koch: Brash and feisty politician who served three terms as mayor of New York

There were rumours about his sexuality; 'I find it rather complimentary!' he once said

He wasn't a matinee idol like John Lindsay. He wasn't a cool executive type like Michael Bloomberg. He didn't have the commanding presence or prosecutorial zeal of Rudi Giuliani. But of all those who served before or after him as mayor of New York, none quite embodied the term "Hizzoner" like Ed Koch.

Like the city he loved above all else, Koch was brash, feisty and in-your-face. He was a natural showman. Long after he left office he was giving interviews, writing columns, appearing on TV talk shows and playing himself in dozens of films and TV series. With a self-promoter's sense of timing, he even managed to die on the very day a documentary film about his life, entitled simply Koch, was scheduled to open in American movie theatres.

He was an indefatigable cheerleader for New York, believing quite simply that it was the greatest place on earth. His exuberance made him a symbol of the city as he helped restore its finances and self-confidence after the crisis of the mid-1970s, when at times New York seemed ungovernable. The darkest hour came on 29 October 1975 when the White House refused to provide federal funds, a rejection summed up in the immortal Daily News headline, "Ford to City: Drop Dead."

Enter, a little over two years later, Ed Koch, a fountain of quotes that made headlines of their own. "I'm not the type who gets ulcers, I give them," he said, and "If you agree with me on nine out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist." Then there was his famous catchphrase, "How'm I doing?" The answer, measured over the dozen years he held what is often described as the second most difficult job in America, was: all in all, not badly.

Edward Irving Koch was the son of Polish Jewish immigrants who lived across the Hudson river in Newark, New Jersey. His father was a furrier; he himself worked as a child taking hats and coats at a Newark dance hall. In 1943 he was enlisted in the army, and fought as an infantryman in France before returning at war's end to New York, where he took a law degree. By 1965 he was a partner in his firm, Koch, Lankenau, Schwartz & Kovner – and an activist in local Democratic politics.

He was a party official in lower Manhattan before being elected to the city council in 1965. That in turn provided a springboard into national politics, as a Congressman representing New York's 17th (later 18th) district in Washington between 1969 and 1977. But Koch's sights were already on Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the New York mayor.

A first bid, in 1973, ended in defeat at the hands of fellow Democrat Abe Beame. Four years later he tried again, this time with a crucial ally in Rupert Murdoch, publisher of the city's leading tabloid The New York Post.

Decades later, Koch recounted the story with typical brio to New York magazine. "I got the call at seven in the morning. The phone rings and the voice at the other end says, 'This is Rupert.' And I say to myself, 'Rupert? I don't know any Ruperts. Rupert's not a Jewish name.' He says, 'Congressman Koch, we're coming out for you this morning on the front page of the Post, and I hope it helps.' I say, 'Helps!? You've just elected me!' People liked me. But very few thought I could win, because I was an unknown. Murdoch gave me credibility. Suddenly, I was mayor of the city of New York."

Koch had started out as a orthodox liberal, but was already describing himself as a "liberal with sanity" – a qualification that, coupled with his passionate support of Israel, would later lead him to endorse not a few Republicans, including George W Bush in his 2004 re-election campaign.

But in the late 1970s Koch's rightward shift was evident in his vigorous "law and order" message to voters (including support for the death penalty), and his promise to put the city back on its financial feet. The formula worked. Koch defeated Beame in the Democratic primary, and then his arch-rival Mario Cuomo, running as a liberal, in the general election.

Four years later he won a second term, with 75 per of the vote. As New York began to recover, Koch's reputation soared; there was even loose talk of him as America's first Jewish president. In 1982 came a setback, when he lost to Cuomo in a bid to become Governor of New York. Probably Koch was his own worst enemy, publicly lamenting the "sterile" lifestyle he would be forced to endure in the state's somewhat provincial capital, Albany.

In 1985 he was triumphantly re-elected to a third mayoral term, winning 78 per cent of the vote. But the magic was wearing off. Even in New York his ego and ceaseless Big Apple boosterism were beginning to grate: "Ed Koch is like a rooster who takes credit for the sunrise," wrote the columnist Jack Newfield.

Relations with the black community worsened and by 1988 Koch was warning his fellow Jews that they would be "crazy" to vote for Jesse Jackson in his run for the White House. Most damaging was a string of corruption scandals. Koch was not implicated personally, but the scandals reinforced a sense of Tammany Hall business as usual. In 1989 he ran for a fourth term but lost in the primary to the African-American David Dinkins, who defeated Giuliani in the general election.

But the irrepressible Koch did not stay down for long. He loved the limelight, loved to hold forth on New York and national politics, and always made great copy. He wrote books and reviewed movies, and even managed to practice a little law. But on some matters, notably his sexuality, he was very private. Koch never married, and rumours that he was gay constantly dogged him. "Vote for Cuomo, not the homo," was a slogan (repudiated by Cuomo) in the mayoral race of 1977, and later accusations surfaced that he had neglected the Aids epidemic sweeping the city in the 1980s for fear of rekindling speculation about his sexual orientation.

In a 1998 New York interview he addressed the issue head-on. "What do I care? I'm 73 years old," he told the magazine. "I find it fascinating people are interested in my sex life at age 73. It's rather complimentary! But… my answer to questions on this subject is simply 'Fuck off'. There have to be some private matters left."

In the end though, what mattered most to Ed Koch was not his sex life but New York City. In 2008, he reserved a plot in Manhattan's Trinity Cemetery, the only graveyard in Manhattan accepting new burials. "I don't want to leave Manhattan," he said, "even when I'm gone. This is my home. The thought of having to go to New Jersey was so distressing to me."

Edward Irving Koch, lawyer and politician: born New York City 12 December 1924; US Representative 1969-1977; Mayor of New York City 1978-1989; died New York City 1 February 2013.

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